Local experts discuss declining COVID cases: ‘We may have turned a corner’

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — As local COVID-19 case rates drop, health experts postulate the region is coming off of the Delta wave, which is the third wave that the Tri-Cities region has seen since the genesis of the pandemic.

News Channel 11 looked at the numbers; the COVID infection rate has dropped, but so has the vaccination rate.

So, what has led to the drop in cases?

“It’s obviously multifactorial; there is not a single answer,” Dr. Stephen May, the medical director for the Sullivan County Regional Health Department, said. “We are following the typical waves that we see for an epidemic. It’s great that we’re coming off our third wave, and we know now what works we know masking works. We know this distancing works.”

According to data from the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH), the COVID-19 infections peaked in mid-September during the Delta variant but have yet to drop down all the way to pre-Delta levels.

“I think, as a country, especially here in the South, we have turned a corner in terms of the worst of the Delta variant surge of COVID-19 that we have seen,” Ballad Health Chief Clinician Dr. Amit Vashist told News Channel 11.

He said he felt that there is a multitude of factors that led to the decline, including a certain amount of mitigation, like social distancing and masking that has happened.

“Not as much as we would have liked, but certainly that happened, contributed a little bit to the decline,” Vashist added.

Vashist and May explained that the region may be coming off the Delta wave, but that the danger is ever-present and now is not the time for the region to let its guard down.

“I don’t know if we’re at the end,” May said. “Viruses are always unique and special in how they can change and adapt to their environment. But right now, we need to be glad we’re coming off the delta wave, number one. Number two, we’ve got great treatments that’s really helping in the hospitals as far as helping people get better but the number one miracle that we have is a vaccine.”

Unfortunately, the numbers for vaccinations are at the lowest ever in the region.

The previously recorded low in terms of vaccine uptake, according to TDH, was during the week of July 9, with 1,476 first doses administered. The region reached a new low last week with a meager 1,205 first doses given in Northeast Tennessee.

Due to the low vaccination rates, experts remark that hospitalizations could have been avoided.

On Wednesday, Ballad Health reported that 93% of the 180 hospitalized COVID patients in its 21-county service area are unvaccinated. Of the 47 COVID patients in the ICU, 94% are unvaccinated, and of the 39 on ventilators, 95% are unvaccinated.

“We certainly have the potential for those who are unvaccinated ,and as I say, this is now a disease of the unvaccinated and if you’re one of the 180 people in the hospital and right now or on a ventilator, that’s a tragedy,” May said.

When it comes to hospitalizations, the number of those receiving treatment for COVID-19 in Ballad Health hospitals is also on the decline, but experts warn the number is not falling fast enough.

“We have seen in the case of other variants, typically they run a life cycle of about two months or so, following which either another variant strain may take over, or if not, the society develops a certain level of herd immunity to the COVID-19 strain,” Vashist said.

He explained that the hospital system has a corporate emergency operation center that continues to monitor the pandemic’s waves.

“We are very worried about the impact of this low uptick in vaccination rate and the reason we are worried about it is what has happened previously, in the one and a half 2021 history of the COVID-19 pandemic, that if the society does not get vaccinated, we are only one variant that may be potentially more severe and more contagious away from trouble, and that can wreak a lot of illness, devastation, and even death,” he said. “So that continues to worry us of course. We may have turned a corner with the Delta variant, but we certainly keep monitoring for other variants that may come.”

He said regardless of the impending flu season, the holidays and cold weather are enough to make any health care worker nervous about COVID this year.

“Certainly, the fact that we are getting into the winter season where a whole lot of people will be indoors, there will be holidays, gatherings, you know, Thanksgiving meals, Christmas dinners, everything coming up,” Vashist said. “So, I think we continue to follow the data very, very closely. But as a health care practitioner and a leader I would certainly encourage our community, please get vaccinated. There is never a late time to get your shots.”

Before the holidays, experts urge those who remain unvaccinated to get the shot.

“I think we continue to recommend it’s never too late to get vaccinated and you know, if you are indoors, we continue to recommend mixed households, if possible, please be masked,” Vashist said. “If possible, please socially distance yourself and everything but the take-home message overwhelmingly is: get vaccinated. It’s not too late.”

May said the community should remember to take extra caution around those who might be high risk.

“I think it’s appropriate that we continue precautions, especially protecting those who are most vulnerable, even if they’re vaccinated, they still may be vulnerable,” May said. “So, it’s important that we take care of those who are high risk still who may not get the best benefit from the vaccine. And the number one thing we can do is get vaccinated and on the second scale is get your booster.”

Though hospitalization rates have dropped, Vashist warned that the social determinants of health in the region are already adverse in terms of higher rates of obesity, chronic heart diseases, lung diseases, smoking rates, high blood pressure, and all those comorbidities, if such a person gets COVID-19 leads to a much more potentially severe outcome.

He said the next COVID variant may be more dangerous to the unvaccinated than any variant we have faced yet.

“People these days, we are talking about the COVID Plus, is that going to wreak some havoc? We don’t know as yet,” Vashist said.

“We continue to rely on CDC, as well as the state health department, as well as our local public health departments to give us advice as to what they are seeing. You know, the testing for the variant is called is basically the genotyping testing and that is done at the level of the state or the CDC.”

Vashist explained that when COVID-19 tests are taken, only a select few samples are sent for the genotyping testing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or to the state lab for analysis.

“You randomly pick up a few samples and then you try to extrapolate those findings as to what’s happening in the rest of the society,” he said.

“I think the most important take-home message for us as a community, for us as a society is this, that our immunization, our vaccination rates continue to be very, very low. And as long as we have people who are unvaccinated, we have a substantial number of our folks in our community who are vulnerable to getting a variant strain of the COVID-19 that may be much more severe, much more contagious, and much more deadly than the ones we have seen so far. And that includes the Delta variant.”

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